Saturday
May142011

School

Mathias Svalina




The first time that my son arrived home from school covered in blood that was not his own I was concerned. The second time it happened I called the principal to register a complaint. The messaging system was voice activated & after repeatedly saying "Principal Butler" & having the system retort in its staticky female voice "I'm sorry could you repeat that" I gave up. The third time my son returned from school covered in blood that was not his own he also had a chunk of meat hidden in his backpack. It was wrapped in pages ripped out of a science textbook. The white skin attached to one side of the chunk had short & ephemeral blonde hairs on it, like those growing on my bald husband's skull ever since he began using the anti-balding cream. I decided that these must be the fine hairs from the leg of a young girl. After this I decided that I must see the principal & vowed to visit her the next day after I dropped my son off at his school. The hallway outside the principal's office was full of parents, many of them talking to one another, agog at all the blood covering their children of late. Some of them looked extremely sad & I wondered if these were the parents of the children whose blood had been covering our children & who were possibly missing chunks of their thighs. Other parents stood impatiently, texting violently into their blackberries or talking into their phones in annoyed, nasal voices.

The principal's office was still dark, though classes had begun. After minutes of our waiting a woman wearing dark blue jeans & a cardigan walked down the hallway with a piece of paper. She pushed through the parents until she was at the principal's door & pulled a roll of adhesive tape from her cardigan pocket. She pressed the paper to the door & pulled off pieces of adhesive tape, which she attached to the corners of the paper.

Parents gathered around the door as the woman left. The grumbling increased, but some of the parents walked away & to the entrance of the school & out those double doors with the wire-enhanced panes of glass. I jostled around until I could see the piece of paper. In large bold type, Times New Roman, the paper read "The Principal is DEAD."

I turned to the parent next to me, a Hispanic man in a suit. He looked at my face. I looked at his face. He asked, "Is this some kind of joke?"

"I can't say," I said, "I've only been waiting here as well." The Hispanic man turned to another parent, a white guy wearing a t-shirt with strange geometric figures on it, & asked him if this was some kind of joke. The two spoke spiritedly.

I walked down the hallway to the front doors. I put my hand to the bar, but paused. I sent out positive reinforcement to my son. Closing my eyes tightly, I thought toward him "Be strong." Then I tried to yell with my thoughts: "BE STRONG!" Then I yelled with my thoughts "DON'T GET KILLED!" And then "DON'T GET EATEN!"

Back at home I logged onto the company database & checked my emails & tasks for the day. There were few things to do now, but I could stretch them out to fill the day to make my bosses think I was doing something essential. Intermittently through the day I stopped & sent my yelling thoughts toward my son. "BE STRONG!" "DON'T GET EATEN." I opened an email from one of my co-workers. She had figured out a fix for a glitch that had been bugging us. I rewrote the email & sent it to my boss as if I had figured out the fix. Then I stopped & squinted my eyes again & thought "IF YOU HAVE TO EAT THEM IT'S OK."

By the afternoon my head hurt from repeatedly squinting my eyes so tight. I poured myself a glass of white wine & bent to lay my face flat against the kitchen countertop. The marble was cold. I was an airplane flying through a frozen fog. I opened my eyes to see my son in the kitchen. Chunks were missing from each of his thighs. Blood dripped to the linoleum in metronomic regularity, chimed a consistent note. He stared at me with stale bread eyes. The note was an A-sharp, I think, but I was never that good at pitch.

 

Around three my son came home. His face was clean & white, but I could see the muted remains of blood splatter on his clothes, where someone had tried to wash it out.

I debated whether the image of him washing blood out of his clothes at school was more or less disturbing than him standing naked while an adult—I pictured a gym teacher—washed the blood out. Him standing with his legs twisted weird & crickety, his little hands covering his little genitals under the fluorescent lights of the locker room.

We have a nice room in the front of the house that we do not use nearly enough. I call it the parlor. My husband never calls it the parlor. In the parlor we have a matching sofa & chair set that are very classy. I took my son into the parlor & sat him down on the sofa. I sat on one of the chairs. "I've been having some concerns," I began. "I can't help but notice that you've been coming home covered in other people's blood."

I looked at my son. He looked back at me. For a moment I imagined him a parking attendant at a big garage in a big city. The kind who sits in the little booth all day collecting money & sneaking cigarettes.

"Also," I continued, "I found that chunk of meat that you brought home yesterday." His face  remained impassive. "I believe it is human meat."

"Mo-om," he whined, twisting his head slightly sideways.

"Don't you mom me!" I said. "I need to know what's going on."

My son opened the zipper of the small pocket of his backpack. Then he zipped it back up. He repeated this. The movement seemed calculated to convey impatience.

"Come now," I said. "you wouldn't act like this to your father."

"Where is dad?" he asked.

I did not want to talk about his father. I wanted to talk about the blood & the meat.

"You know this. He's away."

"I wish he were here," my son said quietly.

"I do too, of course, but we must persevere." I uncrossed my legs & leaned toward him. "If you're having problems at school I want you to know that you can tell me. You can trust me. You need to tell me."

Then I remembered something I'd seen in a movie. "No matter what problems you may be having I love you very much & I will not judge you & nothing will ever change that."

It felt good to say that. I stood up, lifted my son to his feet by his hands & hugged him. When I hugged him I bent my knees so that I was nearly at his level. This conveys respect to a child.

 

That weekend I bought extra-strength detergent to better wash the blood from my son's clothes. The grocery store had long lines & very little left on the shelves. Even after washing them with the extra-strength detergent, the white shirts no longer seemed precisely white. My son spent the morning playing games on the TV, then I sent him outside to play in the backyard & get some sun.

At dinner time I called him in from the yard. His sweat had carved odd rivulets through the dust that covered his forehead. I did not make him wash up. I wanted him at the table filthy. I wanted to watch him eat.

He did not put his napkin over his lap. He did not pause to say grace before the meal as we did when his father was home. He cut the pork chop into large pieces & held each chunk on his fork, ripping mouthfuls off the forked meat. Chewing with his mouth open. Bits of meat & spittle tittered down to his dirty shirt & to the tablecloth. He ate some of the rice, which I'd soaked in butter. He pushed the broccoli to the side of the plate & did not even pretend to eat it.

I was so proud of him grinding his meal. When he finished his pork chop I gave him the one I'd cooked in honor of his father. When he ate that I gave him the pork chop off my own plate. His sweating face was flushed pink. The lights flickered & the fridge reset itself then resumed its churning drone.

When he was done he drank his milk in deep gulps, coming up for air to ask for more. The TV was on, but neither of us were watching. It was the news. The fires were spreading even further through the land. I imagined I could smell the smoke.

 

Monday there were fewer cars dropping the children off at school. The fires had advanced & the horizon was hazily lined with black. I waved at Mrs. Rabin, dropping Tracy off & Mrs. McEwan dropping Malcolm off & Mr. Norman dropping little Forrest off. Forrest looked especially small & vulnerable in the weak morning light. 

I stopped at the curb & killed the engine. "OK remember you have the small knife in your pocket & the big knife in your bag, hidden inside the math textbook."

"I know mom," my son said, rolling his eyes & looking at the school doors. He did not want any of his friends to see us parked here, talking together. I knew this. I was trying to be quick.

"Just another moment. You need to focus & do this for me," I said.

He looked back at me silently. "In case of emergency," I asked, "where do you look?"

He sighed. "The fence line behind the tree."

"Which tree?"

"The weird tree with the broken limbs."

"Wonderful!" Some days I was so proud of my son.

I leaned in to hug him, but he straight-armed me away. "Not here, mom. Geez!"

The tightness in my throat made my voice a bit off. "Mommy loves you. Mommy just loves you so much."

"I know," he said, staring straight out the window.

"OK, get in there," I said & he opened the door & scrambled out.

I pushed the button to roll the passenger window down. I was going to yell "Be strong," but the other children on the patio stared at me & I stayed silent. The air smelled faintly like burning plastic.

After this I drove to the neighborhood beyond the school, cool & shadowy, the thick oak trees planted along the sidewalks muted the outside world. I parked the car, got out & slung the strap of the reusable grocery bag over my shoulder. I wished I'd brought a sweater.

The Gardners' house had no lights on & no car in the driveway, so I cut behind it & walked to the creek. My boots slurped in the wet mud. I remembered how my husband had laughed at me when I bought hiking boots a few years back. "The only hiking you do is through the mall," he'd said. I saw a squirrel on the ground. "Look at me now," I told it.  The drip of blood from its nose told me it was dead. It still looked so fresh, but for its bloated hairy belly. There was another dead squirrel a few yards away.

When I emerged from the trees at the fence line I saw Mrs. Rabin a few hundred feet away, kneeling at the dirt. I waved to her & she waved back, but it was a little wave, with her elbow at her side. I walked away from my son's & my planned spot, but kept her in sight. She knelt in the grass, watching me, then stood & walked into the trees without waving goodbye. Dirt smudged the knees of her faded jeans. She was also wearing hiking boots.

After burying the ball peen hammer & another knife for my son, I walked to where Mrs. Rabin had been crouched. A signpost just through the fence read "Drug Free Zone." The dirt was still loose & digging up her plastic bag was easy.

 

I sat in the car with the radio on. The news was full of static. The fires were the only story. A slight layer of ash had fallen over the roofs & parking lots of the storage center, like dust in an attic. The sun looked swollen through the haze.

The brass colored padlock was still shiny. At first I came here every day, but with the situation at school I hadn't visited since last week. I stepped in & flicked the light switch. Furniture wrapped in old covers lined one wall of the storage garage. White cardboard boxes labeled in thick black pen were stacked along the opposite wall. The smell had increased considerably.

My husband had grown more bulbous & ballooned, but I could still see him in that rotting body. Sagging black skin had folded over the duct tape that held his hands to the chair from our dining table set. His gaping mouth sprouted a fuzzy fungus. The throat was so swollen that the rope knotted around it had ripped the skin open. Black stains & puddles haloed out below the chair.

I circled my husband, taking care not to step in the black muck. I knelt beside him & looked into his misshapen face. His open eyes had dried & split apart.

"Oh darling," I said. "I don't know what to do. I just don't know what to do."